Dixon of Dot Green

The shortage of IT skills in criminal policing could be eased by recruiting industry professionals. A good idea, but we must be wary of the consequences

Proposals that IT professionals should take a more active role in policing the Internet are to be welcomed. The UK's police forces are badly understrength and undertrained in modern technology -- a situation that's unlikely to change soon. Next year is election year and the great British public want to see bobbies on the beat, not constables in chatrooms.

Meanwhile, the IT industry has a deep pool of experience, talent and willingness to help, little of which is currently tapped. A special tech squad, able to provide forensic analysis skills, spot suspicious activities online and provide updated advice on developments, would be a valuable counterpart to the way the Special Constabulary works elsewhere.

Yet care is needed. Would the Tech Specials have new powers? The usual civil liberty concerrns of part-time policing -- search, arrest, confiscation -- might seem to have few parallels online, yet all savvy network administrators will know just how much surveillance can be brought to bear on a particular computer without the user knowing. Outside the workplace, these techniques are mostly illegal -- at the least, potentially so. Computers can also be remotely disabled or deceived, or persuaded to disgorge their secrets: exceptionally powerful ways to get evidence, but thus demanding exceptional safeguards.

Of late, states have sought to vastly increase their mechanisms of surveillance without being eager to install equivalent oversight. Sometimes, these ideas are so egregious that they fall at the first: the American Terrorism Information and Prevention System, TIPS, tried to install a legal requirement for people to report on their neighbours' 'suspicious' activities but was thrown out. Meanwhile, recent legislation in the UK -- the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 -- has imposed new and draconian responsibilities on any professional working on behalf of an individual or organisation to secretly report any signs of illegal activity they discover to the police. It's unlikely that IT professionals would want to have such broad requirements spread to everything they encounter in their lives, nor that the rest of us would accept the potential this would create for wholesale interference online and off.

The idea of properly organised and controlled civilian involvement in technology policing deserves to be taken seriously. It requires a serious public debate, and a sober examination of the implications -- not just for the criminals, but for everyone who enjoys the privacies and freedoms of new technology.

Would you join up for special policing of IT? What safeguards would you like to see? TalkBack below, and let us know.

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